Millennials Go to War

November 10, 2001 | By Joanne Laucius

They were taken home from the hospital in approved baby seats, lived in child-proofed houses and had very little unsupervised play for fear of lurking pedophiles.

With almost 80 million kids in this demographic in the U.S. alone, the Millennial generation—those born in 1982 or later, meaning they will reach adulthood in the 21st century—is a flood of humanity that will shape the world’s future. They are carefully raised, technologically astute go-getters with a sunny outlook on life. They have already pushed Britney Spears and ‘N Sync to the top of the charts, arguably not entirely auspicious for what lies ahead. And now they’re headed off to battle. Are they up to it?

Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising, wrote rather breathlessly about what they call the next hero generation.

“History has tapped them to be the inheritors of the mantle of the upbeat, team-playing World War II-winning GIs,” Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss gushed earlier this year. “Depending on the course of events, Millennials are poised to define the 21st century in much the same way the GIs defined the 20th.”

They’re polite! They like authority! They’re not into drugs and sex! They’re nice to old people!

Some of this might make for a fine army. But military sociologists have already noted that there has been a shift in the image of the soldier from “combat leader” to “managerial technician.”

Perhaps a comment by Kyle Sheahan, a student at DePaul University in Chicago was typical. “I want something to be done, but I don’t want to be the one doing it,” he told the New York Times after the Sept. 11 attacks. “I think we have people that can take care of that without a draft.”

Here’s that “liking authority” thing: “If the president says you have to fight, you have to fight,” said Jeremiah McKinley, student at Florida A & M University. “You have to do what your leader says.”

Earlier this year, both the Canadian Forces and the U.S. army launched new recruitment campaigns in an effort to snag Millennials.

The U.S. army scrapped its time-worn “Be all you can be” and replaced it with “Army of One.” Early in September, less than a week before 19 hijackers would spark another war, U.S. army secretary Thomas White reflected that the army had to change the way it marketed itself.

“I keep telling the old guys like me: ‘We’re not recruiting you, we’re not recruiting me, we’re recruiting the kids that watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” he said.

The Canadian Forces ditched “There’s no life like it” years ago. As of this summer, it became “Strong. Proud. Today’s Canadian Forces.”

Last year, the Canadian military went through a branding exercise to redefine what the the forces wanted to be their message, aimed primarily at Millennials. High-tech was tops on the list, as well as the opportunity to make a difference. The forces’ new $15.2-million recruiting campaign features rock-video-style clips of soldiers using computers and helping others. In one shot, a soldier is helping an elderly woman and a child get out of a helicopter.

Some recruiting centres have reported increasing interest, but it’s too soon to tell if the numbers are due to the events of Sept. 11 or the downturn in the economy, said Lt.-Cmdr. John Coppard, a public affairs officer with the Canadian Forces recruiting group.

The advertising campaign has apparently caused some confusion. “Recruiters frequently report that young people come in and ask to become peacekeepers,” he said. “The recruiter has to explain that a peacekeeper has to be a soldier or sailor first.”

Nelson MacPherson, a research associate at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Strategic Studies, believes the technology-and-peacekeeping message is so warm and fuzzy that it has become unfocused; he’s more fond of the old-fashioned kind of recruiting message like: “Boot camp may be one hell of life, but it produces one hell of a marine.”

But if the Canadian military wants to sell its product, it has to have a product to sell first, he argues. “Our military can’t fight its way out of a paper bag. We have a Third World military. If people see the government is giving the Canadian Forces the tools they need to do the job, then they’ll buy into the message,” he said.

Despite what he sees as a failed message, he thinks the Millennial generation knows what war is all about. This is a not passive generation, he maintains.

Mr. MacPherson teaches two undergraduate classes in War and Society. To bring the reality of war home, he shows his classes slides from autopsies of Second World War soldiers killed in action. “We have a certain antiseptic view of war. But deep down, people know it’s about fighting and it’s about killing,” he said.

Charles Moskos, a professor of military sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has noted that youth surveys from 1980 to 1999 show the number saying they will not serve in the military has increased to 63 per cent from 40 per cent.

When he surveyed 430 of his own undergraduates at Northwestern, he found that many weren’t impressed by inducements of pay, skill training or physical adventure. Many had negative impressions of the lifestyle, danger and length of commitment.

Meanwhile, the U.S. public is much more reluctant to accept casualties, possibly because families are smaller now and it’s simply more traumatic for a family to lose a child if there are only two in a family. Are parents who wouldn’t let their children ride a bicycle without a helmet going to send them to war?

Mr. Moskos has another explanation: Americans will be likely to accept casualties if they see their elites serve in the military. “Citizens accept hardships only when their leadership is viewed as self-sacrificing,” he said this summer in Parameters, the U.S. Army War College quarterly. His solution: either bring back the draft for everyone or recruit kids from the top of the social ladder.

In terms of numbers, there has never been a better time to fight a war. Even five years ago, it would have been difficult to recruit enough youths, simply because there weren’t enough around, says University of Toronto economics professor David Foot, the author of Boom, Bust and Echo.

Kids are still idealistic and activist, he said, but also certain that war will not include them—no different now than they have been at any other time. If there is a war, idealistic youth are going to need a non-military option.

“Maybe it’s time to reinvigorate the Peace Corps,” he said.